This piece is co-authored by:
Ben Hellerstein | State Director, Environment Massachusetts
Jen Stevenson Zepeda | Deputy Director, Climable.org
Mark Sandeen | President, MassSolar
Fran Cummings | Member, Renewable Energy Advisory Committee, Environment Massachusetts
Caren Solomon, MD MPH | Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Nicholas Hill, MD | Chief, Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Division, Tufts Medical Center; Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine; Former President of the American Thoracic Society (2011-2012)
Alex Rabin, MD | Assistant Professor of Medicine, Tufts University; Attending Physician, Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, Tufts Medical Center
Jim Recht, MD | Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Part-Time, Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School; Clinical Consultant, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital
A lot has changed in recent months, but the need to transition Massachusetts — and the world — off of dirty, polluting fossil fuels has only become more urgent.
During this pandemic, we’ve learned more about the ways that pollution from oil and gas is harming our communities. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have found that even a small increase in fine particulate pollution, which comes from the burning of fossil fuels, is linked to a large increase in deaths from COVID-19.
Meanwhile, emissions of greenhouse gases are continuing to warm the planet and change our climate. Last year was the second-hottest year on record, and communities from Florida to Siberia are experiencing record high temperatures.
Now is the time to chart a path away from fossil fuels toward a future powered entirely by clean, renewable energy from sources like the sun and the wind.
There are two different approaches to long-term clean energy and climate action that are under discussion on Beacon Hill as the scheduled end of the legislative session on July 31 draws closer.
One approach is to commit Massachusetts to achieve 100% renewable energy, as embodied in the 100% Renewable Energy Act (H.2836). This bill, filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Rep. Sean Garballey, will transition Massachusetts to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and 100% renewable energy for heating and transportation by 2045.
Another approach is the 2050 Roadmap (H.3983), which would set a target of “net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”
We believe that the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act represents the best path forward for a clean, healthy, and safe future for Massachusetts. It will fully transition Massachusetts away from the fossil fuels that are polluting our air and changing our climate. It will also ensure meaningful progress toward 100% renewable energy in the short term.
In contrast, the “roadmap” approach falls short in the following ways:
- “Net zero by 2050” would allow the continued use of fossil fuels into 2050 and beyond, as long as those emissions are matched with an equivalent amount of carbon offsets. This would expose our communities to harmful pollution for decades and allow for the continued construction of pipelines, power plants, and other fossil fuel infrastructure.
- “Net zero by 2050” falls short of what Massachusetts needs to do to help prevent the worst impacts of climate change. We need to achieve zero emissions from fossil fuels, not just “net zero,” on a timeline sooner than 2050.
- “Net zero by 2050” is barely an improvement over existing goals that have been in place for more than a decade. In effect, it would increase our 2050 emissions reduction target by only 5 percent relative to the commitments we have already made with the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008.
We shouldn’t settle for continued dependence on dirty energy. We can end our use of fossil fuels and power our lives with 100% pollution-free energy, from sources like the sun and the wind.
Support for a transition to 100% renewable energy is strong. A majority of legislators in both the House and Senate have endorsed the goals set out in the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act, along with more than 50 environmental and civic organizations, 150 city and town officials, youth activists, and dozens of health professionals, clean energy industry leaders, and faith leaders.
In passing the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act, Massachusetts would be in good company, joining 13 states and territories and more than 170 cities and counties that have set 100% renewable or clean electricity goals. Many of these jurisdictions are also looking at how to achieve 100% renewable energy for heating and transportation.
In addition to a commitment to 100% renewable energy, there are other policies that the Legislature should adopt this session to help achieve this goal. It is critical to set a strong interim target for 2030 in order to mobilize private and public resources to drive short-term progress. If the goals envisioned by the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act are met, Massachusetts will achieve 68% renewable electricity and 50% renewable energy economy-wide, including for buildings and transportation, by 2030, reducing carbon emissions by an estimated 60% relative to 1990 levels.
Other important policies include setting energy efficiency standards for appliances, requiring the owners of large buildings to report energy usage and make their buildings more efficient over time, establishing carbon pricing, and expanding the deployment of electric buses and cars. Many of these policies were included in a package of legislation passed by the Senate in January, although the Senate bills also included a weak “net zero by 2050” target.
We are advocating for the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act because Massachusetts needs to take ambitious action on clean energy. It’s the only bill that will end the use of fossil fuels and ensure a healthier, pollution-free future for all communities in Massachusetts.
Keep reading for an explanation of our three points on why the "roadmap" approach falls short, and why a commitment to 100% renewable energy is needed.
1. “Net zero by 2050” will allow the continued use of fossil fuels.
A net zero emissions target doesn’t require the elimination of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, but rather allows for fossil fuels like oil and gas to be burned if matched with an equivalent amount of carbon offsets. The continued use of fossil fuels would be hazardous to our health and safety.
In April, the Baker administration issued a letter stating that up to 15% of the emissions reduction required under a net zero emissions target could be met with carbon offsets.
With a net zero emissions goal in place, Massachusetts could continue to emit 14 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in the year 2050 and beyond. That’s equivalent to the annual carbon emissions from the gasoline burned in 1 million passenger cars, plus the electricity used to power 1.5 million homes.
A net zero emissions target would also fail to shut the door on new fossil fuel infrastructure or set a clear timeline for retiring existing power plants and pipelines. Proponents of projects like the Weymouth compressor station could argue that their facilities are needed because Massachusetts will continue to use some amount of fossil fuels in 2050 and beyond. Similarly, the owners of polluting power plants — like the Mystic Generating Station in Everett — may seek to extend their operating life indefinitely.
As mentioned previously, scientists have found a link between exposure to fossil fuel pollution and a higher death rate from COVID-19. Unfortunately, this is far from the only risk to our health. Pollution from fossil fuels, including particulate matter and smog-forming pollution, is linked to a wide range of health problems, including asthma, heart attack, stroke, and cancer. For pregnant women, exposure to air pollution is associated with a higher risk of low birth weight, preterm birth, and stillbirth. Long-term exposure to particulate pollution is also associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
In Massachusetts, people of color are more likely than white people to be exposed to elevated levels of fossil fuel pollution. This may help explain why communities like Chelsea have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19.
To protect our health and ensure that all communities have clean air to breathe, we need to aim for a full transition off of fossil fuels. A “net zero emissions” goal allows for the continued use of dirty energy, and thus misses the mark.
2. “Net zero by 2050” falls short of what Massachusetts needs to do to help prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
To have the best shot at avoiding devastating climate change and ensuring a safe, livable planet for ourselves and our children, we should set Massachusetts on a path to achieve zero fossil fuel emissions (not just “net zero”) sooner than 2050.
While a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global carbon emissions would have to reach net zero by 2050 to have a good shot of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, Massachusetts should set stronger targets, for two reasons:
First, Massachusetts should be a leader, not a follower, when it comes to climate action. We became the first state in the country to limit carbon pollution from power plants in 2001, and we have also led on energy efficiency, solar energy, and reducing vehicle emissions. Rather than aiming for the global minimum of “net zero by 2050,” we should adopt more ambitious goals to set an example for other states and to account for the fact that not every state or country will reduce emissions as quickly.
Second, the IPCC forecasts contain a large degree of uncertainty. It is possible that even with net zero emissions globally by 2050, we could still experience more than 1.5 degrees of warming, and we could trigger irreversible, cascading climate tipping points that lead to greater damage.
The worst-case scenarios for global warming in Massachusetts are dire. If high emissions continue globally, sea levels could rise by up to 10 feet in Boston by the end of this century, and residents could experience 90 days each summer with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Massachusetts has led the nation in climate action for decades. We can and must do better than the absolute minimum. We should lead the way once again by committing to transition off of fossil fuels for electricity by 2035 and for heating and transportation by 2045.
3. “Net zero by 2050” is barely an improvement over existing commitments.
In 2008, the Legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), requiring Massachusetts to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by at least 80% by 2050 relative to 1990 levels. Subsequent decisions by the Supreme Judicial Court have affirmed that the targets set by the GWSA are binding and state agencies are obligated to issue regulations to meet those goals.
The GWSA has been interpreted to require an 80% reduction in actual or “gross” emissions, the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere from human activities, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels. A "net zero" target introduces the concept of “net emissions,” where the carbon released from burning fossil fuels could be balanced or offset by activities that are claimed to take carbon out of the atmosphere.
As mentioned previously, the Baker administration has said that up to 15% of the emissions reduction required under a net zero emissions target could be met with carbon offsets. In other words, “net zero by 2050” requires only an 85% reduction in actual emissions — an improvement of only 5% over the legally binding 2050 target that was set more than a decade ago in the GWSA.
A wide range of activities could potentially be counted as carbon offsets. Many offsets involve the use of plants and ecosystems, like forests, to remove carbon from the air.
Would these offsets actually reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? It’s hard to say. Verifying the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere, and making sure that the carbon stays there over the long term, is difficult. Scientists have raised doubts about tree-planting schemes that promise major carbon reductions but often fail to deliver.
Moreover, the Baker administration could take credit for a significant amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere without having to take any additional action. According to the Department of Environmental Protection’s emissions inventory, Massachusetts’ forests absorb an amount of carbon each year equivalent to 13% of the state’s baseline 1990 emissions level. This figure does not include the carbon sequestered by other ecosystems, such as wetlands and grasslands, or many of the trees growing in urban or suburban areas.
Without planting a single tree or creating a single additional acre of forest or wetlands, the administration could claim that most or all of the 15% of offsets envisioned under the “net zero by 2050” target are already happening.
“Net zero by 2050” represents hardly any improvement over the commitments we already have in place. In recent years, and even in the last few months, the devastating impacts of our dependence on oil and gas have become more clear than ever. Now is the time for us to raise the bar by setting more ambitious targets and more rapid timelines to get off of fossil fuels.
Let’s put Massachusetts on track to 100% renewable energy.
We support powering Massachusetts with 100% renewable energy from sources like solar and wind, for all sectors, including electricity by 2035 and heating and transportation by 2045.
We believe 100% renewable energy is the right goal for Massachusetts for three reasons:
- It’s the right way to protect our health and ensure a safe, stable climate. Committing to 100% renewable energy would ensure the complete phase-out of fossil fuels, eliminating the pollution that is linked to an elevated risk of COVID-19 and other diseases. It would also bring carbon emissions from fossil fuels down to zero, on an ambitious but achievable timeline that is suited to Massachusetts’ historic role as a leader on climate action.
- It clearly informs the decisions that need to be made in the short term. A commitment to 100% renewable energy provides clarity. By setting a 100% renewable energy target, the Legislature will send a clear message that we cannot invest in any infrastructure today that implies the continued use of fossil fuels beyond 2045, and that all companies across all sectors must make plans to transition their operations to non-polluting sources of energy.
- It’s easier to enforce. A commitment to specific renewable energy goals will set stronger parameters, rather than leaving so many important decisions to the administration. Experience has shown that when it comes to climate and clean energy policy, it's important for the Legislature to be specific and set a clear direction. By using an existing, successful program — the renewable portfolio standard, or RPS — to reach 100% renewable electricity, we can ensure measurable progress toward our goals each year, without relying on a lengthy regulatory process that may result in weak policies.
This is why Environment Massachusetts is advocating for the passage of the Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act, together with a broad coalition including people from all walks of life.
Now, it’s up to House Speaker Bob DeLeo and energy committee chair Tom Golden to determine whether the 100% Renewable Energy Act will come up for a vote. We’re counting on them to step up as champions for our health and our climate, and pass a bill that measures up to the challenges we face and the practically limitless clean energy potential of the Commonwealth.